JARS v53n2 - A Tale of Thailand

A Tale of Thailand
Norman A. Todd, ARS Director of Off-shore Chapters
Victoria, British Columbia

One late spring day in 1997, I had an unexpected visitation by a bus-load of travelers from Thailand. I was not too enthusiastic in my welcome, as I had only 20 minutes' notice of their coming and I had not in the past made any special connection between Thailand and rhododendrons. Their leader, on alighting from the bus, was immediately identified as such by his headgear - a baseball cap on which was artistically emblazoned "The Dogfather". After the initial handshake he drew attention to its prominence. Keeping pace with his purposeful stride was the one woman in the group. When I asked her name and was told, my attempt to repeat it was so far off the mark that the lady said, "Just think of Rhododendron makinoi ." I did not know it then but all Thais have nicknames and this lady's nickname was "Noi." I did know then that I was dealing with serious plants-people.

The group visiting our nursery was one half of the senior staff of the Mai Fah Luang Foundation of Thailand. The other half was visiting our British Columbia museum and investigating the local craft outlets. The "Dogfather" was M. R. Diskul Disnadda (Khun Chai, more informally), Secretary General of the Foundation and Noi was his wife. The group had a short tour of the nursery and garden. This was followed by very courteous thank-yous and with promises to keep in touch. My thought at that time was that here was potential for establishing a chapter of the ARS in Thailand.

Later that year, there was a phone call from Bangkok from Dr. Charlie Mehl. Dr. Mehl looks after the international interests of the Foundation. He invited my wife and me to visit Thailand. "Just get to Bangkok and we will look after you from there on." At that point all we knew about the Mai Fah Luang Foundation was gleaned from the couple of pamphlets that Khun Chai (The Dogfather) had given me on his visit.

The Foundation had been established by the late Princess Mother of Thailand who was appalled at the devastation that was happening to both people and land up in the northeast corner of Thailand. This is where Thailand borders with Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. This is the area notoriously known world-wide as The Golden Triangle.

The hill tribes in this region had, since the sixties, become commercial growers of the opium poppy ( Papaver somniferum ). The hill people had been growing the poppy for hundreds of years, probably since it was introduced to the area during the spice trading days of the 14th century. They used opium medicinally and it had become an inherent part of their culture. Now, there is a total proscription on its growth. The opium poppy is a plant that does well on poor soils. I don't recall where it came from but it grows quite well in our garden. In recent years poppies have given better economic returns to the Asian growers than other crops. The hill tribes became dependent on selling to the drug lords. They also became enmeshed in the sex trade, trading their teenagers to prostitution.

The authorities recognize six main tribes, most of which practice "swidden" farming. It is also called slash and burn, shifting, or rotational agriculture. With the exponential increase in the demand for opium, the tribes responded by burning more of the forests to get more acreage into production. Some of the tribes had originated in Burma; some originally came from China and some from Laos. None identified in a civic sense with the current political boundaries and all had their own language, although about half had their ancestral roots in the territory of Thailand.

Apart from the squeeze for land to grow opium, the larger causes of deforestation in Thailand were the conversion of forested areas to agricultural crop production by lowlanders and by logging. I learned a new meaning for "clear-cut." In fact I despaired of seeing teak trees, but eventually did see lots of reforested young ones. Later we saw elephants working with teak logs. Teak grows in a narrow altitudinal range. To be rich in Thailand is to own teak trees. One reference cites a statistic that explains the urgency for new government policies. One hundred years ago 75 percent of Northern Thailand was forested. In 1989 only 30 percent of the forests above 800 meters elevation remained. In that year the Thai government banned logging of any kind, although some observers note that illegal logging accounted for at least three times the legal quota and that it still continues.

It is hard to believe that the lush luxuriance that we experienced at Doi Tung was a clear-cut just ten years before. Plants grow quickly in this region of tropical fecundity. Eighty-five percent of the Foundation's lands are now in forest - some deciduous and some evergreen. We experienced no rain during our visit and the temperatures were salubrious, in contrast to the steamy heat of Bangkok. December and January are the driest months in the north. This is when the deciduous trees drop their leaves. Doi Tung has, on average, 1400 mm of rain falling on 145 days of the year - a relatively dry microclimate in this part of the world. Other parts of Thailand experience two annual monsoons. We were told that during the June to September period it is very damp indeed. With daytime temperatures in the twenties and the coldest recorded temperature being 5°C, I would have thought that they would be able to grow many other horticulturally desirable genera like proteas; but proteas evidently cannot tolerate the prolonged dampness of the monsoon.

In 1987, the Princess Mother assembled 150 square kilometers of this devastated mountainous land to form the Foundation. She built a residence - a palace - at Doi Tung. Doi Tung means mountain of the flag. She also set up an ambitious social/economic program to give the hill people alternatives to growing poppies: introducing better varieties of rice, making paper from mulberry trees, growing coffee (as good as Kona coffee), making textiles, and growing cut flowers and house plants.

There are 26 villages within the boundaries of Doi Tung. During our visit to we saw only one of the villages. That was the occasion of one of our happiest memories. We stood watching as a couple of dozen 3- and 4-year-olds in the village school boisterously acted out the words of the songs they were singing in such an engaging fashion that we found ourselves trying to follow their motions and getting quite caught up in their enthusiasm.

However, we had been invited to Doi Tung for the purpose of discussing rhododendrons. Khun Chai, in his plan for the development of the estate, has set aside 50 hectares for growing rhododendrons. Rhododendron is not a common plant in the wild, and apart from those at Doi Tung about the only others we saw were beautiful bright potted evergreen azaleas at the Sunday Market in Bangkok. Thais love bright colours, especially red.

At Doi Tung, there are already immaculately landscaped gardens with sweeping lawns: great swaths of colour from roses and geraniums, salvia and petunias, punctuated by towering spikes of Italian cypress in a panorama that rivals Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia. The road that climbs steeply and twistingly from the plains up to the 1500 meter elevation of Doi Tung is lined with tall poinsettias with colors so intense that we were awed by their brilliance even when, on the night we arrived, we could only see them by the headlights of the vehicle and by the light of the stars. In the greenhouses were orchids (many are native to this area) and anthurians and begonias and thousands and thousands of African violets. Many were being grown by tissue culture, as were pineapple and rice and a special vetiver grass that is being used to stabilize the steep slopes of the deforested areas. This grasses' roots go down 3 meters but the disease resistant clone they use does not reliably set seed, hence the need for micro-propagation. The propagules are grown on in square Johnny Walker whisky bottles, which are set out on the ground under shade cloth. One nursery grows plants solely for the royal residence. The residence where we were accommodated was certainly "royal" by any standard. The floral display in the main living room would have stocked Victoria's largest florist quite easily. On Christmas Eve the decor changed to one we were familiar with. The "tree" was a Pinus kesiya , one of the species used for reforestation.

Khun Chai is a man in a hurry. He has set aside 50 hectares for a rhododendron garden. His first priority was to get the hard landscaping completed. The paths and the stairs, built of local sedimentary rock set in mortar, are aesthetically sumptuous. The gazebos and pavilions are architecturally inviting. Right on the edge of the ridge, where the border with Myanmar (Burma) runs, is a semi-circular lookout. There, the view over the hills goes forever and the sunsets are of tropical subtlety. We could see some areas on fire but whether these were natural occurrences or not we could not determine. Close to this grand viewpoint were two Rhododendron smithii (now R. argipeplum , subsection Barbata ) that had been relocated from China. They were estimated to be 100 years old. They were anchored in with tie-downs, but they were in bloom on Christmas Eve when Princess Mahachakri Sirindhorn was in residence at the Foundation. We were fortunate to be introduced to Her Royal Highness. Some of the slopes on the site had been planted with an evergreen azalea native to Thailand ( R. simsii ) and these were doing well. Also doing well were Yunnan plants of R. decorum , R. fortunei and R. delavayi (now R. arboreum ssp. delavayi ).

Other area were planted with maddeniis - mostly R. taronense (now R. dendricola ) - also brought in from Yunnan. These were mature plants, 3 to 4 meters in height, but they were thin and twiggy with small root balls and had defoliated badly although many showed new shoots coming from the base and along the trunks. Just a meter or so from the Burmese border were specimens of R. lyi and R. ludwigianum , both native. Unfortunately the sun had set when we saw these plants, and as I had not brought flash equipment up to the ridge I was unable to photograph them. If one were a bird watcher and keeping a lifetime "sightings" list, then having seen these species "in the wild" would be a major event, but there was so little light when I saw them that I could not make note of any distinguishing characteristics.

The staff at Doi Tung and the
author's wife, Jean, with a 100-year-old R. argipeplum relocated from China.
The staff at Doi Tung and the author's
wife, Jean, with a 100-year-old
R. argipeplum
relocated from China.
Photo by Norman A. Todd

The scale of the rhododendron "garden" at Doi Tung is so immense that it calls out for large plants. However, great gardens do not quite happen overnight. But clearly the climate and the site are so benign for rhododendrons that it should be possible to grow all but the alpine species. With a frost free environment all of the vireyas should flourish, as should all the species in subsections Falconera and Grandia . Recalling how quickly the plants had grown at Pukeiti in New Zealand, it is not difficult to imagine the little plants that are now being grown from the 1998 ARS Seed Exchange, luxuriantly clothing the steep slopes at Doi Tung. My mind had difficulty with the idea of growing hybrids on this natural setting but clearly many of the most exotic will flourish. I really tried to take a plant of David Leach's 'Bangkok' with me but I couldn't find one locally. It would probably not thrive in that soft environment, I rationalized.

Perhaps we rhododendron growers will soon give an altered connotation to the one we usually have of the Golden Triangle. My wife and I will always think of Thailand in golden terms.